Yes, this is a drum I’m going to keep banging. It bothers me that I’ve lost momentum and don’t feel the thrill of creating a new short story anymore. I can do it, I can write one out if I study previous stories for about an hour, and if I let myself off the hook from producing anything good, but that’s not how I want to be. Way back in the beginning, I taught myself how to type out of desperation to communicate: Telnet was hot, and I was boiling over with stories to experiment with, so I typed as fast as I could and that meant learning how to type faster.
Now, it’s like… what’s the point. Where is this going? The “correct” answer is that artists don’t create for profit or esteem, they do it because they love what they’re doing. But the extension of that is, do I love writing anymore? That’s a bleak question, and on my low days I don’t have an encouraging response, but ultimately, yes, I love writing. It’s important to me, I like reading like a writer and I like framing these ideas as elegantly as possible (and learning how to get better).
I’ve written about stoking creativity and building momentum in the past. I’ve assembled a list of resources and advice for writers; on Jan. 1 of this year, before the pandemic, I wrote a motivational piece to return to playful creativity; I theorized about how useful it would be to design a writing ritual (though I neglected to write the following posts to go with it) and outlined the importance of the artist’s date; I wrote about feeling dejected about lack of success with Amazon and Smashwords, and adjusting my priorities; I even wrote a short story about a supportive spouse who takes a hand in summoning her writer husband’s muse. I’ve thought and thought and thought about this area of matters, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like I’ve made any progress in it. After all, I used to write a story a day for three months, and now weeks can go by without producing a word. I’ve had to ask my very patient and understanding patron to scale back his expectations and pay only when I can be bothered to produce an installment, in an effort to alleviate this perceived pressure on my head.
It doesn’t feel great, to founder like this. It’s discouraging. I was trying to build a following through my writing, and I did, but not as large as I’d dreamed of. The interest is small and times are hard, and then I wonder if I’m as good as I think I am. I tried to broker a deal with the cosmos: if I was a good enough writer, then I would deserve a giantess. Well, there are no giantesses, not like I’m thinking of them, or else I never was good enough. Which feels better to say?
It was a false dichotomy. That’s the only appropriate response. A dichotomy is a lie.
Now it’s the first week of December 2020. I’ve been growing my hair out in lockdown for over 260 days. I’m back in therapy, learning how to feel safe going outside when nearly no one in my fucking neighborhood wears a goddamn mask, learning how to curb my emotions instead of succumbing to a flare-up that ruins my day and makes me shit to be around. The holidays bring up hot emotions and old memories, not always good ones, too, and then there’s this whole governmental fiasco that still finds ways to get worse. It feels like the only way to find any peace is to resolutely block out the entire fucking world. I go out for walks at times when there will be few people out, and I wear sunglasses for the morning sun, over-ear headphones to listen to a writing coach podcast, and my mask, plus my heavy coat and gloves because Minnesota doesn’t know what the hell it’s doing with weather, and I’m effectively cut off from the dose of nature I went out to experience. What was the point?
What’s the point of anything? Days bleed into each other, I can work from home and wear pajamas multiple days in a row. Why would I bother writing some rinky-dink fetish story when the world’s on fire and mortalities are escalating? The scene is exploring playing with gender expression and identity in radical new ways, we don’t even have a sufficient vocabulary to frame what’s going on: who wants to hear yet another story about a tiny cishet white man trying to sneak a crumb of sex off a cishet white woman? I feel like a broken record, and if I do return to creative writing, it will strictly be for myself because the world has moved on.
Well. I used to believe in what I called proactive nihilism: if the universe truly has no meaning and everything was an accident, if you can only decide what has value for yourself, then why not prioritize your entertainment and self-expression? Nothing matters, so why not? Why not write your bizarre-ass stories if nothing matters and all things are equal? Why not.
That didn’t seem to sustain me. I can’t help the external values from creeping in, eventually. But moral relativism is also a lie, whataboutism does no one any favors. It’s just an argument to do nothing, take no action. You have to give yourself permission to create, and you have to give yourself permission to create something lousy and inept, because it doesn’t matter, and you have to have sufficient self-esteem to believe you have any right to dispense this kind of permission in the first place. That sounds like a huge burden.
It’s not. You have every right to create. Your voice is unique, your ideas are unique, and you’re creating something that didn’t exist before. Maybe you won’t be named poet laureate, but someone out there is waiting to hear your story and feel validated by it. This is true. And if no one reads your story, then it was still worthwhile to create it and explore your tools and inner resources to create it. It was still worthwhile for you to draw a breath and shout into the void. Because why not.
It’s December, the final month of the year. I’ve postponed my commission, I’ve ended my writing contest, and my Twitter account is set to autopilot. What am I doing here?
Among other things, I had a bad week last week. I nearly bottomed out in depression, not all the way but close enough to worry my wife. And given that we’re cooped up in this little two-bedroom apartment during the pandemic, it’s very important that I be pleasant to be around, or something awful might happen. I buckled down and contemplated how to turn this ship around.
I’ve had success with SuperBetter in the past. The creator of it has a fascinating backstory. This program was designed to gamify self-improvement. I recommend it for anyone looking for a fundamental kickstart to improve their mindset and change their life.
I also had a lot of fun with Habitica, another app that gamifies your habits and goals. It works better with other people, ideally supporting each other, but I could never get anyone to play with me. I got very far on my own, but it turned into background noise after a couple years.
Instead, I went back to basics. I pulled out a notebook of grid paper, turned it sideways, and along the top (X-axis) I numbered all the days of December, plus a couple extra on either end. Down the left column (Y-axis) I wrote out a list of habits I want to start (kettlebells, breakfast before coffee, practicing French and piano), goals to accomplish (writing blog posts, writing letters to friends, an artist’s date), and responsibilities to fulfill (clean the catbox, cook dinner) each day. Or most days. I also added a few things that I shouldn’t be spending a lot of time on (Minecraft and Warcraft), to see how often I favor those instead of doing something aligned with my personal goals. I also selected a nice pencil, a Palomino, with a soft lead to mark a deliciously large X when I achieve something. That makes me look forward to achieving it, beyond the satisfaction of doing so. After a week I’ll look it over, examine what I’m doing well on, think about what I’m not fulfilling and how to change that, prioritize those activities.
Four days into this project, I feel great. I feel very good. Any time I have a free moment in my day, I look at this list and pick out something accessible. After copyediting sales sheets for my college’s certificate programs, I’ll run through a few French drills on my phone, or I’ll step out and practice Schumann’s “Northern Song” for ten minutes. When I’ve cleared all my work through tomorrow, my wife and I get geared up and take a 20-minute walk in the early afternoon. At the end of the day, I haven’t achieved everything on my list but there’s still a substantial number of big, black X’s in a column, and that feels good. After four days, when I see that two or three goals haven’t been touched, I know that I can put off some of the others and give more energy into doing these, at least once. I feel productive, I no longer feel like my days are wasted and I’m spinning my wheels. It was such a simple tool, no apps, no membership fees, and all I have to do is remember to look at it every day for a month.
Like I mentioned, I listen to a lot of podcasts about writing inspiration, writing style, writing career, &c. Some of these are listed on my For Writers page, and I recommend them to anyone who wants to tell a better story. I listen to them while doing dishes and going for long walks, I look forward to them. One of these is put out by a writing coach named Ann Kroeker, and I was influenced by her episodes on “Five Writing Strengths You Need to Succeed” and “How to Read Like a Writer.” The latter of these included instructions on how to make someone’s book truly your own by writing in it, which horrified me. I keep my books as new as possible, as long as possible! Maybe if I bought a second copy of an important book, then I could write notes and questions in that, highlight important passages, stick little flags on the pages. It occurred to me that I should be keeping a writer’s journal, instead, where I keep track of favorite lines from novels, and why not add good advice from writer interviews or even podcasts I like, and Ann told me that such a thing is a centuries-old tradition called a commonplace book.
I looked up several articles and blog posts on this, and it’s a fascinating concept. Many articles refer back to one blog post, “How and Why to Keep a Commonplace Book” by writer Ryan Holiday; there’s also a Jstor article on Pursuit of the Self in 18th-Century Britain and even a MasterClass webinar on it. If you don’t want to look it up: originally it was a way for people to collect their thoughts and keep track of important ideas, when they were being inundated with new information in the advent of the printing press. People wrote down recipes, speeches, facts and research, everything they didn’t want to forget. Much later it became a tool for writers, like I said, to keep track of favorite lines from a novel, save story ideas, write down their reviews and responses to others’ work, and so on. Like people I know and admire, I have a small collection of pristine, unused blank books waiting for a purpose. I was pleased to choose a Midori notebook to become my commonplace book, and I immediately started looking up information to fill it with. The first entry is a cute line from a Gene Wolfe novel; three more entries are pertinent advice from the Well-Storied Podcast, episodes that focused on plot, theme, and character development.
So that’s about it, that’s where I stand today. I’m back to doing morning pages and writing a full journal entry each evening, before bed, and that’s a lot of writing when I was doing none prior to this. I’m going to pursue this self-improvement track for a month, trying to achieve as much as possible (which gets easier as I feel better about it), and I’m going to keep my eyes and ears open for stellar writing advice both from people I follow and from unexpected sources. This, at least, keeps me engaged with the world when it’s so easy to shut down.